The Climate Emergency DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Richard BenyonMain Page: Richard Benyon (Conservative) - Newbury)
(11 months, 2 weeks ago)Commons Chamber
As colleagues can see, there is massive interest in this debate. I will therefore impose a four-minute time limit. It will apply after the Scottish National party Front-Bencher, but I am sure the next speaker will bear it in mind.
The climate emergency seems to be the kind of emergency where a lot gets said and a lot less gets done. We meet here in this leaking, cavernous, old museum to discuss this climate emergency while outside it people have been banned from protesting about the possible extinction of us as a species. That is an interesting juxtaposition—one to note for our memoirs, should any of us ever get to write them.
I was in Aberdeen at the weekend, for the social event of the season, of course. There is something about the granite that whispers about the enormous length of time that this planet has been spinning around, changing, developing and surviving. You get to thinking about the species that no longer exist, about how some of the extinction events were on a massive scale and about how no species is guaranteed to survive any of those events—that means us too, whether the protests have been banned or not. But we would never know it from looking at the political and governmental response—or inaction—to this emergency.
This is not something that has been sprung on us, either. It is not as though this is news that no one saw coming. The man with the cleft stick has not just arrived, out of breath and anxious, with the news that we are all stuffed. Rachel Carson wrote “Silent Spring” nearly 60 years ago—something that we mark as one of the base cases of the modern environmental movement, but she was not the first voice. George Perkins Marsh spoke about the urban heat island effect and the greenhouse effect, and called for a more considered and sustainable development. That was in 1847, three weeks and 162 years ago. In his lecture, he commented that the ideas were not new even then and that he had borrowed them from Peter Pallas, a Prussian zoologist of the 18th century.
The Irish physicist John Tyndall proved the link between atmospheric carbon dioxide and the greenhouse effect in 1859. Later that century, 1896 to be precise, the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius calculated how much atmospheric carbon dioxide contributes to global warming and published the first calculation of the global warming effects of human emissions of CO2. His work inspired the American Thomas Chamberlin, who published the next year on the CO2 feedback loop that drove the ice ages and might now be driving us to a tipping point. In 1934, the US Weather Bureau issued its first analysis of temperature change, which inspired the Englishman Guy Callendar to analyse historical temperature records and calculate a half-degree warming between 1890 and 1935. From there, he built the theory that burning fuel increases atmospheric CO2 and he coined the term “greenhouse effect” in 1938. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee said that pollutants were causing climate change and time was running out to turn it round.
The science is not new; it has been there for 250 years or so. It has, for sure, been developing, but it is not some fad; it is not a crazy fashion that the kids are all getting down to. It is dusty old stuff from the history tomes. But here we are talking again about the climate emergency, and protestors have been banned from London. There is a massive irony in the failure of this UK Government to take any sort of effective action, in that the greatest hero for many of them would be Margaret Thatcher, and she was the first leader of a major state to call for action on climate change. The 1988 Toronto conference was treated to some stark evidence produced by scientists. Thatcher, perhaps because her training as a chemist made it easier for her to understand the language, took up the baton and issued the call. She said it was a key issue and her Government allocated additional funding to climate research. It was, however, mainly relabelled or redirected from elsewhere—they were Tories, after all. Thatcher made that call 31 years ago, yet here we are once again talking about the climate emergency and the protests are banned.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established in 1988 and in 1990 issued its first report, which confirmed the past scientific findings and issued warnings for the future. Those warnings have continued ever since, but I am starting to wonder whether familiarity is breeding contempt, because the warnings are getting starker and the flash headlines are getting scarier, but the action is not getting any more urgent.
The Environment Bill, which we finally got a sniff of this week, appears to be a howler of a missed opportunity. Apart from the toil of reintroducing EU protections into UK legislation, it misses the chance to be ambitious and claim a future worth having. It promises net zero emissions in 31 years—so, incredibly, we are at the halfway point between Thatcher pledging that the UK would get serious about the environment and the Government actually doing something. If the captain of the Titanic had been warned about the iceberg well in advance and started a discussion about what to do that carried on long enough to watch the thing tear a hole in the side of the ship, while the debate was still about which way to turn, he would be in about the same position we are in now. It is past time for talking and long past time that we should have been doing. It is time to inject a sense of urgency into the climate emergency.
The House can take it as read that the Scottish Government are doing things better, but this should not really be about party political point scoring or engaging in the constitutional debate. Let us see what the UK Government could offer to help to address the problems we all face. It is time the Government introduced some real measures to address the UK’s greenhouse gas output. They could copy Scotland by being guided by the Committee on Climate Change. Members may have heard of that committee; it was set up by the UK Government, although its calls to action are little heard by Whitehall. They are heard in Scotland, though, and the Scottish Parliament and Government have taken action. The climate change Act kicked off a serious attempt at addressing the problems, and it has not abated since. That is why the United Nations climate action conference will be in Glasgow next year.